It’s no secret that business acumen and financial literacy are critically important for all business leaders.
However, leading a business is not done by putting financial statements first. Customer satisfaction, revenue and innovation cannot be conjured simply by staring at financial statements. Rather, leaders with great business acumen are outwardly focused, market sensing and customer centric. Yet the larger and more successful your organization becomes, the harder it is to put customers at the center of decision making. Why does this happen? There are two main reasons:
- As companies become larger, layers of management and functional specialization are added, putting distance between most of the organization’s employees and customers
- As companies become more successful and complex, leaders spend more and more of their time on internal issues
How do you know if your organization has become too inwardly focused?
Have your senior leaders open their calendars in your next senior staff meeting. Do a quick audit of how many meetings your team members are having in any given week, and the topics of those meetings. It’s very likely that for non-sales leaders, over 95% of their meetings have very little to do with customers, and instead focus on ‘control’ and ‘inspection’ of internal issues. Many of you can open your calendars right now and see internally focused meetings that are ‘repeat scheduled’ every week or every month from now till the end of time. These meetings start to look like the furniture after a while – you just accept them as a fact of life. But they don’t have to be.
The one thing you as a senior leader can do to shift your culture to be more customer centric
Senior leaders in large organizations, especially non-sales leaders, must fight the forces that lead to an inwardly focused, product centric, risk-mitigation time suck. As senior leaders, you have the power to control both the quantity and topics of meetings in your organization and you must exercise this power. Salespeople should not be the only people in regular dialogue with customers.
For example, a technology client of ours was suffering from a classic lack of customer centricity: they had become inwardly focused, product centric and technically arrogant. Only the sales force spoke to customers, and every other functional leader managed internally. Customer satisfaction was dropping and market share was shrinking, and the sales force became the ‘complaint receiving force.’ Customers had become the sales force’s ‘problem’ and other functions had no empathy or skin in the game.
One day, an SVP looked at his entire leadership team’s calendars in a meeting. And he discovered, to his horror, that all of his non-sales leaders spent practically zero time with customers. All of them were booked from Monday morning to Friday afternoon with internal meetings. So, he made a bold move. He mandated that they would work together to delegate 30% of their scheduled meeting time to direct reports, and use that freed up time to spend with customers. What happened as a result? Two things:
- The sky didn’t fall. Direct reports took over the meetings and had an opportunity to take on more responsibility.
- Customers were shocked and delighted. Imagine your company’s engineering leaders speaking to your customer’s engineering leaders? Or (gasp!) imagine your finance department talking to your customer’s finance department to discuss how to be better partners? This is actually what happened.
Quality time with customers
For this technology company, it wasn’t enough that they just spent more time with customers. They also carefully planned how they would spend this time. Historically at the company, if non-salespeople had one hour with a customer they would use those 60 minutes to show 60 slides and discuss their internal product roadmap or other internal priorities. They had to break these bad habits and create new capabilities — they had to learn how to have ‘blank sheet of paper’ discussions with clients about the client’s business. They asked open-ended questions about what the client’s business challenges were and how they measured success. They ultimately asked how they could be a better partner to their client and learned lots of new and useful things. Not surprisingly, new revenue opportunities began to appear and the new, open-ended dialogue with customers sparked fresh, innovative ideas.
Ultimately, customer satisfaction and market share increased, and it all began with making tough time-allocation choices. If you take the mantle of leadership seriously and care about your company’s long-term competitiveness, you can do the same thing. Today. Right now. Open your calendars, re-focus leadership time on customers, and note the positive impact to your financial statements in a few quarters!